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‘Henry V’

By Amy E. Schwartz
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 06, 1990


Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh;
Derek Jacobi;
Paul Scofield;
Judi Dench;
Ian Holm;
Emma Thompson;
Robert Stephens;
Geraldine McEwan;
Alec McCowen
Parental guidance suggested

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Every age remakes Shakespeare in its image, then embraces the reflection; but not always with the joy and enthusiasm that are being heard on every side about Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V."

Lines at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle have been around the block. Weekend shows sell out -- and the distributor expects Washington to break box-office records. In Washington, one distributor told the City Paper, the movie does well because it is "a very political film." Which raises the interesting question of what, in the politics of the film and the town, is striking so true a note.

There's no requirement, of course, that a production of Shakespeare be topical. But it happens more often than not. In staged Shakespeare productions, with their short runs, pointed interpretations are a tradition: Caesar's Romans become Nazis or gray-suited bureaucrats, Romeo and Juliet young radicals, and so forth. In Eastern Europe in the dark years now ending, Shakespeare became the cover for all sorts of social comment. (In an epochal Krakow production of "Hamlet" in 1956, described by the director-critic Jan Kott, an audience suddenly burst into applause at the line, "Denmark's a prison." Another in Warsaw subsided to shocked silence when Lady Macbeth held up her bloodstained hands in an explicit reference to Stalin.) Unlike these fleeting moments, though, a new Shakespeare film tends to reflect the culture of the moment more broadly. As the first major Shakespeare movie in years and the first "Henry V" since Laurence Olivier's gung-ho nationalist classic, Branagh's production tells us a lot about that moment -- even while also restoring to our minds the timeless clang of "Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!"

Much has been made of the Branagh Henry's anti-romanticism, its contrast to Olivier's lusty celebration of war and glory. People who grew up with the Olivier version may find this a whole different play -- more questioning, more agonized, finally more humble. Some have called it anti-war, but it's not exactly that; Branagh, rather, faithfully reflects the complex intertwined pro- and anti-war themes in the actual lines. Which is more real? The Henry who sends troops into battle with some of the most inspiring images ever coined? Or the one who lays out in chilling detail the pain and atrocity that will result from the war he is about to wage?

Branagh is 29, young enough to come after the peak of anti-war sentiment; not for him the simple answers of chivalry, or of anti-chivalry either. Rather, he fits the generation that came along just when unthinking patriotism and unthinking protest had fought each other to a standstill. Faced with battle, then, this Henry starts from scratch. And from the first clang of opening credits -- red letters flung up against a black background -- the note struck most often is of awe and humility. Humility before Shakespeare himself and the presumption of approaching him; humility before the blazing drama of combat; most of all, humility before the great questions raised by kingship, war and the leading of men. Aside from its politics, the main subject of "Henry V" is how this brash former libertine learns what it means to be a king and how to do it well. In Branagh's version the lessons come hard, and at the play's end they are far from complete.

Henry goes to war with France partly to gain legitimacy, to secure his foothold among the old men who still remember his misspent youth with Falstaff. He has hardly made it to Southampton, the embarkation point, when he finds out that war is more than he bargained for: his spies catch three trusted lieutenants -- Cambridge, Scroop and Grey -- in high treason. Branagh's face shows Henry's utter perplexity as he wrestles his old friend Scroop to the ground: How can you have done this to me?

As the battles pass, that same wonderfully undhandsome face -- pushed-in, scruffy, streaked with dirt -- takes on a greater and greater radiance. But it is the radiance of commitment to his men and the mission -- of doggedness, not righteous certainty. Things are anything but clear in this war. Friends die. One of Henry's old compatriots from the tavern is caught thieving and hanged -- on his orders and before his eyes. In a famous scene before the battle he slips on a hooded cloak and walks the camp incognito to hear what the men are saying. But what he hears is perplexing and discomfiting -- moral challenges to his leadership mixed with affection and bravery -- and dawn comes before he has sorted it out. Henry responds in the way now immortal. He breaks off the attempt to understand, prays to God, arms -- and gives the thunderous St. Crispin's Day speech, which resonates 10 times more for foundation in that moment of despair.

Branagh, unlike Olivier, includes the snippet of epilogue in which the Chorus (in modern dress) points out that all the gains Henry made in battle were lost back to the French in the next generation. But he stops short of suggesting that this monumental outpouring of human bravery was worthless. Maybe that's where we are at the lip of the '90s: a little perplexed as the great theories of government and codes of policy fall on every side; a little cautious in the rush to new judgments; but game to try and build it all again.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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